County Commissioner Fred Skillern has a legendary reputation around the county courthouse for his exercise of raw political power -- and intimidating manipulation of some of his fellow commissioners -- in pursuit of his misguided personal agenda to control the county school board and the school system's superintendent. But the general public has rarely been given a window through which to see how Skillern works, and the unbridled attitude he brings to his myopic mission.
The public at last got a good glimpse of that Thursday morning when this paper's county government reporter Ansley Haman detailed Skillern's unvarnished tirade against Commissioner Greg Beck and Superintendent Rick Smith outside the commission's meeting chambers.
"His ass is mine," Skillern said of Smith, while sitting in the commission's mail room and scolding Beck for opposing his efforts to block release of $1.1 million in PILOT funds to the school system. "You let me down again," Skillern admonished Beck, who moments earlier had come out on the winning side of a 6-3 vote by the commission to release the funds to the school system.
Skillern, who last year led the controversial move to wrongly withhold those funds, ranted to Beck about Smith, the man he had previously tried to install as superintendent over former superintendent Jesse Register and his successor, Jim Scales, both of whom were ultimately hounded out of their jobs by a Skillern-led faction of the commission because they would not bend to the commission's attempted dominance of the school system.
"Rick Smith has lied to me, he's lied to me, and he's lied to me," Skillern said. Raising the specter of his role in removing Register, he went on to suggest not just to Beck, but also to Commissioners Joe Graham and Warren Mackey, that he had the power to make or break a superintendent.
Skillern's claim that Smith had lied in connection with his decision to use the PILOT funds -- "payments in lieu of (school) taxes" made by industries that are granted general property-tax waivers -- apparently involved Skillern's discussions with Smith over school priorities for those funds. Skillern told Beck that Smith had agreed with him to use the funds to replace the Falling Water and Ganns Middle Valley schools.
"I had Smith agree to use that money at that time," Skillern said. "Rick Smith has lied to me, he's lied to me, and he's lied to me." Smith told Haman later that he had not made an agreement with Skillern on which schools would receive funding, and that he had never lied to Skillern.
County school board chairman Mike Evatt backed up Smith's view. He said Skillern had presented his priorities for school buildings, but that he, too, had made no commitments to Skillern. He also dismissed Skillern's claim earlier Wednesday that "Rick Smith's not running the school system. Mike Evatt is running the school system."
"You don't run a school system from sitting on the board," said Evatt. "That's not my job."
Haman heard Skillern's remarks while waiting outside the mailroom to speak with the commissioners about the PILOT vote. She could easily be seen by Skillern taking notes as he ranted.
His remarks clearly confirm, as if further confirmation were needed, precisely how some county commissioners use their budget leverage to wrongly force the elected school board to kowtow to commissioners' agenda for the release and spending of school funds. This is not the relationship envisioned under the state law that established an elected and independent school board charged with overseeing the school system.
This master-servant relationship would promptly change if Hamilton County's voters would commit to vote for commissioners who would eschew the egregious practice of trying to control the school board and its superintendent. They might rise under the banner of Skillern's mantra, "his ass is mine."